We need good public theologians not culture warriors

By Mike Lewis, 6 February 2022
Image: Michele Bitetto/Unsplash


Schism and the ecclesial vocation of the theologian

In the years following the Council, the idea of the prominent outward-facing theologian has shrunk from the popular Catholic consciousness. We have suffered greatly as others took their place in communicating doctrine to the faithful. We need more good theologians who avoid the trap of being ‘culture warriors’ and can engage in genuine dialogue with our culture.

As I shared last week, Sacred Heart University hosted a panel discussion entitled, “Francis: Is a Schism on the Horizon?” The discussion was organized and moderated by the Canadian academic and writer Michael W. Higgins and was hosted by Sacred Heart Professor Daniel Rober. The panelists were professor and writer Tina Beattie; writer and commentator Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter; Vatican journalist Christopher Lamb of The Tablet; and veteran author, filmmaker; and journalist David Gibson of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. All four are columnists for Sacred Heart University’s Go, Rebuild My House blog, which discusses issues surrounding the current state of the Church and contemporary culture.

It was an interesting and lively discussion, and it was gratifying to see the topic of the schismatic currents in the US Church addressed in an academic setting. Certainly some of the panelists—notably Christopher Lamb (in his book The Outsider) and Michael Sean Winters in his columns—have been vocal about the passionate and well-funded movement against the pope and his reforms.

At one point during the discussion, Winters pointed out that he has been trying to bring attention to this looming schism for four years. For example, in late August 2018, he was quoted in an article by Washington Post journalist Chico Harlan as saying, “We are a step away from schism,” in response to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s so-called “testimony,” which called on Pope Francis to resign. “I think there is a perception among the pope’s critics that there is vulnerability here – on the part of the pope and in the Vatican generally,” he added.

In a column a few days later entitled, “Has the EWTN schism begun?” Winters pointed out how the coverage of the pope on the network and its affiliates had become indistinguishable from the more radical and fringe LifeSiteNews. He lamented the bishops who had openly endorsed Archbishop Viganò’s letter and their tolerance of vitriolic anti-papal discourse. Noting how this shift towards rebellion and schism in US conservative Catholicism revealed unprecedented hypocrisy, he wrote, “Their devotion to the papacy, once their calling card, is now abandoned because the pope espouses some theological nuance they have been trying to stamp out as heretical innovation.”

During last week’s panel, Winters described how Catholic theologians at mainstream Catholic universities (at least in the US) are largely absent and silent in response to the unfolding schism. He remarked, “Unfortunately, I think our theological academic life is in many ways completely divorced. I mean, if you go to a modern Catholic university and just knock on the door of the theology faculty, you’re not going to hear a lot of talk about Vatican II. You’re not going to hear a lot about papal Magisterium… it’s a non-ecclesial conversation.”

Clearly, there are exceptions to this in many theology departments—one certainly hopes that Vatican II and the Magisterium come up in conversation from time to time in the faculty lounge—but Winters has a point. Many academic theologians seem to be more tied up in the sociology of religion and their specialized areas of research than in expounding on Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology. It is also easy to point to academic theologians who appear to be more interested in political and cultural trends than in important developments and questions affecting the Church, let alone in what’s happening in Catholic media and in the pews. Quite often, when they do respond to Magisterial decisions or Church teachings, they will offer critiques or evaluations from their perspective as members of the faithful, not as communicators of the truths of the faith. Many don’t see their role as assisting the Church by helping to provide—as stated in the Vatican Instruction Donum Veritatis: On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian—an “ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church” (DV 6).

There are of course reasons for this separation, the most conspicuous historical example being the 1967 statement drafted by a group of Catholic academics entitled The Idea of the Catholic University. The Land o’ Lakes Statement, as it is known (from the name of the Wisconsin town where the meeting took place) was a sort of declaration of independence by university administrators from constraints imposed by the hierarchy. The statement declared, “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

Conversely, the Church envisions the practice of Catholic theology—while defining it as a scientific and rational discipline allowing open inquiry and freedom of research—as working within a framework that includes several “givens,” including the truth of Revelation and the Magisterium of the Church, received in faith by the theologian. Donum Veritatis says, “These givens have the force of principles. To eliminate them would mean to cease doing theology” (DV 12).

The Church sees the work of the theologian as not simply a job or a field of study, but as a Christian vocation. It is as much rooted in prayer, discernment, and calling as it is in research and study. Sadly, this has too often not been the case. As academic theology is detached from Catholic ecclesiology, it has become detached from the life of the Church. Theologian Joseph Augustine Di Noia, OP, currently an archbishop and Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote an essay in 2009 on the relationship between the chancery and the academy. According to Archbishop Di Noia, the notion “that the vocation of theologians is a properly ecclesial one has been and continues to be doubted, disputed, or denied. Even if it is conceded that the theological profession entails a calling of some kind, it is supposed that this would be primarily an academic or intellectual vocation, involving overriding allegiances, not to a church or denomination, but to one’s scholarly guild and the larger academic community.”[1]

In an address to the community of the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2014, Pope Francis said that the study of philosophy and theology is “fruitful only if it is done with an open mind and on one’s knees.” He went on to assert that “the theologian who does not pray and who does not worship God ends up sunk in the most disgusting narcissism. And this is an ecclesiastical illness. The narcissism of theologians, of thinkers, is disgusting.”

The US Catholic Church has suffered greatly as a result of this. In the years following the Council, the idea of the prominent and respected outward-facing theologian has largely disappeared from the popular Catholic consciousness. In its absence, others had to take their place in expounding upon and communicating Catholic teaching to members of the US faithful who have hungered for ways to deepen their faith. Since the 1970s and 1980s, this gap has been filled by an assortment of public figures—clerics with media platforms, popular apologists, and Mother Angelica. Bestselling authors and celebrity speakers such as Christopher West, Matt Fradd, and Matthew Kelly have flooded the Catholic market with their books and presentations. Unfortunately, the few theology professors—such as Steubenville’s Scott Hahn and Ralph Martin of Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary—who have managed to land in the public eye typically conform to a very narrow ideological view that is not representative of the world of serious academic Catholic theology and biblical studies.

More recently, with the rise of the internet, social media, blogs, and YouTube, the ability to opine publicly on Catholicism to large audiences has increased exponentially. The popularity of figures like Michael Voris, Taylor Marshall, and Father James Altman demonstrates the compelling nature of outrage, vitriol, political extremism, and conspiracy theory—even among Catholics.

Since the election of Pope Francis, many of the aforementioned figures have become toxic critics of the pope and have profited from generating outrage and fostering a schismatic movement within the Church. More recently, they have put lives in danger by opposing public health regulations and vaccines, defying the message of the pope and the example of the institutional Church.

In the public square, knowledgeable and faithful serious thinkers on current ecclesial issues are in short supply (I am grateful that some of the exceptions to this rule have contributed to Where Peter Is). As a Church, we are ill-equipped to respond. During last week’s panel Winters remarked, “That’s a real problem that the US bishops have to get their head around. They’ve got to initiate a dialogue with theologians. Separate the ones who are interested in ecclesial dialogue from those who aren’t, but bring them back into the discussion.”

When we think about the serious controversies and misunderstandings that have dominated popular Catholic discourse during Francis’s pontificate, the anti-papal view has driven the narrative, at least in the English-speaking world. In the lead-up to the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family, scorn was heaped upon the so-called “Kasper proposal.” and a sense of dread about a “rigged” synod permeated the conservative Catholic consciousness—a sense that was heightened by the rhetoric of numerous pundits in Catholic media. Very few voices went into the public square to explain the principles of synodality and Petrine primacy to nervous Catholics.

Amoris Laetitia was met with outrage by much of the Catholic right. Some, like former Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput argued that the document hadn’t made any changes to Catholic doctrine or discipline, others—like Cardinal Raymond Burke­—brazenly attempted to argue that the apostolic exhortation didn’t participate in the Magisterium at all. Many, if not most, of the theologians who did speak about the document—including faculty members from the John Paul II Institute—promoted the arguments of the anti-papal critics. Arguably, the most committed and outspoken writer in defense of the exhortation against the reactionary dissenters was a piano teacher from Southampton named Stephen Walford, whose articles in La Stampa, including his “Open Letter to the Four Dubia Cardinals,” and his book, Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy were widely circulated among those who wanted a deep and nuanced understanding of the pope’s teachings. At the same time, he was on the receiving end of a barrage of abuse from trolls on the internet and criticism from Catholic media.

During the Amazon Synod in October 2019, a moral panic broke out on the Catholic right over hysterical accusations that visiting indigenous Catholics had engaged in a pagan ritual and were promoting pantheism—all with the pope’s approval. The media coverage of this scandal was almost entirely one-sided, with a few notable exceptions, including Austen Ivereigh and Christopher Lamb. There were few prominent Catholics who were willing to attempt to understand what really happened and explain it to a confused public. A friend of mine happened to be headed to Rome as the synod was underway. He was planning to have dinner with an influential prelate who had helped organize the synod, and I asked him before he left if he would please ask this prelate to address some of these controversies. My friend attempted to do this but was shut down as soon as he asked. The prelate said he didn’t think it should be addressed because it would just give more attention to the reactionary fringe.

Because very few inside the Vatican deemed it necessary to address the hysteria, it fell to outsiders to respond to the moral panic. Arguably, the person who did the most to shed light on this controversy was our own Pedro Gabriel, who—when not performing his day job as an oncologist in a hospital in Portugal—researched and wrote about these questions. He dove deeply and comprehensively into Amazonian history, spirituality, and myth. He translated articles and documents from Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian into English. He reached out to experts and synod organizers. He purchased and read books on the early missionaries in the region. He studied theological questions surrounding inculturation and syncretism. It was hard, often thankless work, and he was regularly trolled and attacked on the internet for his efforts. And he did it all as a volunteer, in his spare time. I credit this effort by Pedro and many other WPI contributors for putting us on the map and providing Catholics with a clear and truthful picture of these events.

I cannot speak highly enough of the service to the Church done by Pedro Gabriel and Stephen Walford, and I believe both are brilliant and faithful Catholic thinkers, but why did it fall to a pianist and a cancer doctor writing in his second language to be the most prolific and committed defenders of the Magisterium and the primacy of the pope in the Anglosphere on these issues? Catholic blogs, news sites, and social media were in full attack mode against Catholic moral theology and the authority of the Vicar of Christ, some even accusing the pope of sinning against the first commandment. Nevertheless, hardly any bishops or academic theologians could be bothered to crank out a few blog posts that attempted to explain what was going on to confused Catholics—assuming they were even aware of these controversies at all.

I asked Michael Sean Winters about last week’s panel discussion, and whether he hoped it might help spur more Catholic academics to actively respond to this crisis. He responded, “I hope last night’s conversation will ignite a deeper discussion about the theological and ecclesiological issues at work in this functional schism. There must be legitimate grounds for disagreement with a pope, and sometimes dissent itself can be productive. The active undermining of a papacy, however, is something different and it shows how wedded some conservative US Catholics are to their theological opinions on issues about which the Church leaves a great deal of freedom for debate and discussion.”

Of course, dissent is never productive when the dissenter not only refuses to admit to it, but is willing to damage the Church by presenting a distorted caricature of ecclesial authority as authentically Catholic. There’s a growing contingent within the Church—particularly the US Church—that has embraced Archbishop Lefebvre’s “warped ecclesiology,” as St. Paul VI described it. Little has been done to address this in the US Church. Instead, we’re inviting it into our parishes as a guest speaker. This is causing a crisis that calls for a response by faithful bishops and theologians, and better collaboration between them.

The cooperation of the Successors of the Apostles and theologians who truly embrace their ecclesial vocation reached new heights and bore great fruit during the Council, and the Church would greatly benefit from a renewal of that partnership. As Donum Veritatis says, “The living Magisterium of the Church and theology, while having different gifts and functions, ultimately have the same goal: preserving the People of God in the truth which sets free and thereby making them ‘a light to the nations’” (DV 21). When the bishop and theologian recognize the gifts and complementarity of their roles as authentic and authoritative teacher of doctrine and communicator tasked with clarifying and applying the Gospel, the Church benefits.

Given the rocky and often contentious history between the academy and the chancery, how can these relationships between bishops and theologians be forged. Michael Sean Winters suggests that the bishops should take the first steps by reaching out and beginning the dialogue. In order to work, there needs to be a spirit of openness between both parties, but there must also be commitment. The bishop must be willing to listen with openness to the theologian, and theologians cannot forget that their work is in service to and in communion with the Church. Both theologian and bishop must also be cognizant of the unity of the Church and in fidelity to the pope.

The release of Traditionis Custodes presents a concrete opportunity for the bishops to exercise authentic Catholic ecclesiology in communion with the pope, with each other, and with theologians. Although at first, many US bishops tried to sidestep their responsibility in this matter, the Responsum by Archbishop Arthur Roche has spurred a few into action—including, perhaps surprisingly, Bishop Thomas Paprocki. Paprocki, a canon lawyer and the ordinary of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, was among the first US bishops to exempt his priests from the restrictions introduced by Pope Francis’s motu proprio. On Tuesday, however, Paprocki issued new guidelines more in line with those of his metropolitan archbishop, Cardinal Blase Cupich, and with Traditionis Custodes itself.

Furthermore, in these guidelines (and in communion with the Archdiocese of Chicago), Bishop Paprocki has made provisions for the instruction of the faithful on the liturgy and the reforms of Vatican II. The guidelines state, “A plan of catechesis will be presented to assist and accompany those attached to the former rite to fully appreciate the restoration of the liturgy and the teachings of the Council” ( Further, the diocese also seeks to ensure the orthodoxy of priests incardinated in the Archdiocese of Chicago who serve in Springfield, stating that they “will be asked to affirm in their written petition to celebrate the sacraments in the earlier liturgical form that the restored liturgy of the Council is the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite” (

Assisting in these sorts of tasks, especially in creating resources to catechize the faithful on the liturgical reform and the Council, is an area where bishops and theologians can work together with the people. Although Traditionis Custodes has provoked anger and hard feelings in many Catholics who were attached to the older form of the liturgy, its long-term aim is to unify the Church. Ultimately, collaboration between the bishops, theologians, and the faithful in its implementation can help form necessary bonds between people and generate the types of ideas that we will need to avoid threat of schism and build the synodal Church of the future.

Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

With thanks to Where Peter Is and Mike Lewis, where this article originally appeared.


[1] J. Augustine DiNoia, “Communion and the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian in Catholic Higher Education, in The Enduring Nature of the Catholic University” (Manassas, VA: The Cardinal Newman Society, 2009) 51.


Read Daily
* indicates required